Compared to other professions, are salespeople disproportionately prone to lying? To reveal the answer, I searched online for most dishonest professions, and was rewarded with several surveys. One study conducted in 2014 listed the top 10 least honest (the number following indicates the percentage of survey respondents who believed the profession trustworthy):
Lobbyists – 6%
Members of Congress – 8%
Car salespeople – 9%
State office holders – 14%
Advertising practitioners – 14%
TV reporters – 20%
Lawyers – 20%
Newspaper reporters – 21%
Business executives – 22%
Local office holders – 23%
Go us! Of the top 10 most dishonest professions, biz-developers hold only three slots – lobbyists, car salespeople, and advertising practitioners. Still, as marketing/sales professionals, we’re over-the-top touchy about our honesty image.
Earlier this month, a writer on LinkedIn asked whether it’s acceptable for salespeople to lie. He felt that lying seems the new normal in selling, and he invited others to weigh in. Some opinions were as malleable as a steel girder:
- “My answer is short and simple – no.”
- “A person is either honest or a liar. The Truth is not conditional. Half-truths are lies.”
- “Never acceptable. Persuasion is a positively reinforced message through fact and data driven decisions.”
- “just don’t do it.”
These thoughts outline an archetype: the impeccably honest salesperson who never lies, never distorts, and never withholds facts and information. Unfortunately, that archetype represents an impossibly high bar. Try any of them out on a newbie rep. Chances are, he or she will flunk day one on the job. Same for days two and three – assuming they get that far. And experienced reps will just roll their eyes. “Get a grip, pal!”
“Just don’t do it.” If only things were that simple. For hundreds of years, the meaning of honesty has been debated by legal scholars, judged in courts, and mulled by philosophers. Honesty is difficult to define. One reason we often pad the word with adjectives: pure honesty, partial honesty, brutal honesty, radical honesty, morally honest, and mostly honest. The same for truth and lies. Few would argue that white lies aren’t acceptable, or that honest facts aren’t used for fabricating illusion.
One person’s bald-faced lie is someone else’s minor distortion. Should things be any different in selling? Is there something magical or different about sales that invites draconian edicts like these? Emphatically, no. Lying appears the “new normal” in selling because by these standards, lying is . . . pretty normal. And it’s hardly new.
The advocates of “no lying” need to abandon their idealized interpretations of truth purity because they are divorced from selling reality. A major reason is that the default rhetoric of marketing and sales tends toward certainty – especially for describing outcomes and results. We favor concrete terms like definitely, will, guaranteed, and proven. No rep wins the boss’s approval by adopting mealier – but more honest – terms like probably, possibly, could, and might. I challenge anyone to find a Chief Sales Officer willing to trade off persuasive power for a sworn commitment to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
“Never acceptable.” If marketers followed pure honesty to the letter, the first thing on the chopping block would be storytelling. I have yet to read one sales story that hasn’t been factually creative, at best. The second thing to go would be “case studies,” since they are never as objective as the name implies.
Admonishing salespeople to “never lie,” only creates dissonance and goal conflict. Managers manufacture failure by insisting their reps behave “100% honestly,” while holding a hatchet over their necks as motivation to achieve goal. Inevitably, the rep must choose. And sadly, saying “I got fired for doing the right thing for my customer” doesn’t merit an invitation for a second job interview. Sales Culture Training 101: “No matter what, make quota.” Message, received.
That’s not the only problem. When “never lie” absolutism exists, ethical risks lurk nearby. Absolutism crushes debate and discussion. And when it comes to honesty and ethical behavior toward customers, nuanced conversations are sorely needed. The problem with these LinkedIn comments is that there’s no room for interpretation.
At its most atavistic, selling is persuasion. And persuasion requires distortion. Distortion of fact, distortion of meaning, distortion of reality and urgency. Over beer, we can hold a simpatico conversation to parse the differences between distortion and lies. We can exchange information about what we allow ourselves to do and say when representing our companies, and the honesty lines we refuse to cross. We can talk about the influence of David Hume and Diogenes. One thing is certain: neither our honesty interpretations nor our ethical boundaries will be identical.
According to these absolutists, distortion and lying are equivalent. My recommendation: don’t follow their advice. If you want your customer to take action – say, for example, to buy from you and not from your competitor – you must make sure they believe that it’s fully in their interest to do so, and that ordering now is a priority. You can’t do that without tweaking reality to promote your point of view.
For salespeople, balancing honesty and persuasion means walking a hair-thin line. Same for ego and empathy. All are needed for success, but they collide and clunk against one another. “It’s a miracle anyone can do this job,” Philip Broughton wrote in his book, The Art of the Sale. No joke.
I am not a proponent of lying as a sales tactic. I am not advocating deceit and misrepresentation as a business practice. And I am not saying that anything goes as long as it results in revenue. Far from it. I am saying that marketers and salespeople should strive for honesty and high ethical standards in their professional conduct. I am also saying that to be effective, salespeople need a rational basis for ethical consideration, and “never lie” undermines that goal. We need salespeople who are strong critical thinkers, not sycophantic believers.
A personal confession: I have made sales lies. Repeatedly. Here are three:
1. “I can’t offer you a lower price.” Lie. Prices are quite easy for vendors to massage, and rarely – if ever – is it impossible to offer a lower price, as “can’t” connotes. Customers know it. Everyone knows it.
What’s more truthful? How about, 1) “it’s not convenient for me reduce my price,” or 2) “if I allow you to buy at the lower price, my profit margins will erode, and our CFO will get angry with me,” or 3) “I get higher commission selling at list price, and I need the income this quarter.”
2. “Buying my company’s product is the best use of your resources right now.” Lie. I’ve never been 100% sure when using superlatives, yet I still use them. Besides, with this lie, I have rarely had full visibility into every project a company is considering anyway. So I’m not being fully honest when making the claim.
What’s more truthful? 1) “based on my analysis of the numbers you provided me, you should probably meet your expected financial return,” 2) “My competitor’s product does pretty much the same thing, so you can’t go wrong choosing either one of us,” 3) “I understand why you want to implement my proposal now, but based on what I have seen, you’d be much better off solving [name of project that my company doesn’t provide a product for].”
3. “Our machines have highest performance rating in the industry.” Lie, by omission. But still a lie. Is highest performance rating based on MTBF (mean time between failures)? Longevity of components? Quality of output? All of these? And where was the benchmarking performed? – In house? Through an objective third-party? And there’s that superlative problem again: highest.
What’s more truthful? 1) “We have the highest performance rating in one category.” 2) “We performed the benchmarking in-house.” 3) “Our in-house test results always look better than what you will achieve in the field.”
I harbor no remorse for committing any of these. But if you’re into “never lie,” try some of the more truthful statements with your customers, and let me know the results.
I want to head off a concern right now. You might already be thinking, “These are trivial lies. They are not the kind that get anyone into trouble.” Fair point. But then I’d urge you to identify what type of lies really get your dander up. Lies like telling customers, “We have offices in 28 states,” when those “offices” are actually indirect employees working virtually from their homes? Or, my favorite, “Our software has over 48 installs,” when two-thirds of them are dormant beta accounts that have made no commitment to purchase? Smile, wink. These statements are kinda, sorta true, and because of that, they stink around the edges. I don’t like them. Mostly, I get annoyed with the CMO’s explanation, which often begins, “Well, technically . . .”
Maybe we need a new taxonomy for marketing lies. Here’s what I propose:
Class I lies: run-of-the-mill marketing fluff, flamboyant writing, and expected braggadocio. The claims prospects are already jaded to. “Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.” Or “We’re the industry leader!” There’s really no foul for broadcasting any of this stuff. If any prospect bases a purchase decision solely on such claims, well, shame on them.
Class II lies: deeper, more egregious transgressions. Stuff that generates fines, lawsuits, and bitterly negative Yelp reviews. Example: “Our brain games help users achieve full potential in every aspect of life,” which got Lumosity fined by the FTC. The FTC asserted there was no scientific proof to substantiate that claim, along with others Lumosity made.
Class III lies: I call these BHAL’s (Big Hairy Audacious Lies), because of their potential to directly and significantly influence a customer’s buying decision. Lies that obscure the true cost of procurement or operations. Lies that patently overstate the capability of a product, or promise a result that can never be delivered. The Fyre Festival debacle resulted from a series of Class III lies.
If your business objective is to instill ethics and integrity in your biz-dev organization, don’t fret over Class I lies. Just keep your eye on them to make sure they don’t become more serious. Propagating Class II and Class III lies, on the other hand, substantially increase business and stakeholder risks, and they must be carefully managed. Here are some important practices:
- Recognize that honesty and truth are subject to interpretation, and there’s often ambiguity in selling situations.
- Model ethical, honest behavior from the top echelons of the company. Executives who are not vocal proponents, or who are not rigorous about their own honest conduct cannot expect any different from employees.
- Encourage internal discussions among staff about what they encounter in sales and marketing situations, and how they make choices.
- Offer guidelines to staff when rules don’t fit. Avoid vague requests like “don’t be too salesy,” or “don’t over-promise.” Instead, ask your staff to think about what’s ethical in selling, and to always consider, “what is the right thing to do?”
- Don’t penalize honesty by creating conflict. It happens more than companies realize. If Wells Fargo taught us anything, it’s that a salesperson should never have to decide between being honest with customers, or keeping his or her job.
- Provide clarity for what’s restricted by documenting them in writing, and reviewing them routinely with your staff. The Class III lies that significantly influence customer decisions, that directly contradict product specifications or contract terms, that inflate or falsify an employee’s credentials. The restrictions should also include what can – and cannot – be said about competitors, performance benchmarking data, pricing commitments, and other financial disclosures.
P. T. Barnum, one of the greatest salespeople who ever lived, was adamantly against fraudulent selling, but he recognized the subtle nuances about honesty and lying:
“An honest man who arrests public attention will be called a “humbug,”‘ but he is not a swindler or an impostor. If, however, after attracting crowds of customers by his unique displays, a man foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money, they never patronize him a second time, but they very properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor; they do not, however, call him a ‘humbug.’ He fails, not because he advertises his wares in an [outrageous] manner, but because, after attracting crowds of patrons, he stupidly and wickedly cheats them.”
As Broughton observed, “There is evidently a line here somewhere between humbug and deception, between Barnumesque hype and outright lies, between reading your customers to give them what they need and exploiting their weakness to your own advantage.”
I hope the “never lie” proponents figure that out.